The Cross of Christ, Towering Over the Wrecks of Time: A Meditation Upon the Passion

This guest blog was written by Dr. Brenda Goranson, Global Scholars Canada’s new Administrative and Communications Coordinator. Brenda has a PhD in Canadian History from McMaster University, an M.A. in Indigenous history from the University of Toronto, and a few short stints in the world of archeology. This meditation was given at the GSC “Easter” Zoom meeting this year, the day before Palm Sunday.

Passion week is a sacred and contemplative time for Christians the world over. This year, with war in Ukraine and the concomitant suffering we witness, we are reminded that this world is in need of a Saviour. As Canadians, we watch in horror and whisper prayer that we are safe here. That like-invasion in Canada couldn’t happen … 

Two centuries ago however, not far from here, it did. We have built monuments as proof; reminders of how ‘we’ as a nation have been forcibly forged in times of crisis. Perhaps due to our nature – being a more reserved and humble sort – there are few things that Canadians would consider ‘lording’ over American neighbours, but among them: our hockey prowess, the Canadian side of the Falls, the burning of the White House and Brock’s Monument on Queenston Heights. Seen from great distances, by hundreds of Americans daily, it stands facing and pointing somewhat tauntingly at New York State across the Niagara River. It is here that the so-called, “Saviour of Upper Canada” is buried. 

Brock Monument, Queenston Heights, Niagara River, Ontario, Canada (pixabay photo)

Major-General Isaac Brock, 43, a Guernsey, military man from the age of 15, fresh off a total victory – a complete surrender in fact – over American Major-General William Hull, whom he had pushed back to Detroit months prior along with critical Shawnee ally, Tecumseh and the Delaware; led the charge against a 2nd American Invasion on October 13, 1812. Over a thousand Americans had crossed the Niagara River under fire, taking the Redan Battery and turning the British artillery position on its own defenders. True to character, Brock who had sworn to “never ask his men to go where he would not lead them” was sashed and sword-brandished, as he led the charge straight up the steep hill. Yet in a surprising and somewhat lacklustre denouement, he was shot almost immediately by an unknown American sniper. First pierced at the wrist, he was then killed by the musket ball that tore a hole through his red coatee, just above his heart. Legend has it that his dying words were “Press on, York Volunteers!” Two men died on either side of Brock’s charge that day, an unnamed “poor fellow” who reportedly collapsed across the fallen General and on the next, his Aides de Camp, John Macdonnell, who had attempted a 2nd charge, mounted, as musket balls broke legs, severed middles and pierced sides. 

Though Brock was lost, the battle became a romanticized victory for the British and Canadians – won in fact, by the brilliant tactics of Chief John Norton, his Mohawk and Delaware warriors along with some regulars, militia and ‘Captain Runchey’s Company of Men’ – both free and enslaved black soldiers – now battle-hardened from fighting for real freedom since the American Revolution. By the time Winfield Scott waved the white handkerchief, so many Americans had been taken prisoner, killed or wounded that English victory was claimed with a mere fraction of those numbers, by a side that was far more than simply English. 

Brock’s body was secreted away, entombed in a nearby home until the battle was over. Three days later, he was buried at Fort George – a funeral attended by thousands of mourners when the population of Upper Canada amounted to comparatively little more. He would later be re-buried (along with Macdonnell) at the summit of Queenston Heights under a monument built to his memory, in 1824. The same, blown up in 1840, purportedly at the hands of a Fenian sympathizer with visions of a free Ireland, was replaced in 1853 with the monument that stands today; proof that alternative visions of British Imperialism were being summarily rejected. The legend of Brock himself at that time, had already reached messianic proportions – it was rumoured that his resurrected body was remarkably intact and still quite a striking figure, while the remains of Macdonnell had returned to the earth in more ways than one. Thousands of people visit the site each year while history buffs debate the actual place of Brock’s mid-escarpment sacrifice. Re-enactments take place and hundreds don the Red Coat while the actual ball-ridden, artifact itself, is blue-light studied and museum displayed. All in testament to a “Saviour of Upper Canada” of the early nineteenth century. 

General Brock’s ‘death coat’ in the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa (by Lone Primate, Flickr)

But Canada needs a Saviour for ALL time. And not just for Upper Canada/Ontario, but for the World. Not just a well-dressed gentleman, titled and reportedly from a good family, but rather, a Saviour who is perfect, triune, the Son of a Holy Father and the ‘God with us’. We need not a dead war Hero, but a living Christ, who informs not just our imperfect past, but is the hope of our present and future. Where Brock’s last words might have been “to press on” (it is largely accepted that his wound would have rendered him incapable of speaking), Christ’s convict us that IT IS FINISHED. Historians have argued that Brock’s sacrifice on the Heights was a reckless choice, ill-advised, timed and fated. Jesus Christ’s was in contrast, requisite and purposeful; thoughtful, prayerful, the whole, part of God’s perfect plan. Through Brock’s death, all who suffered and who continue to suffer, for generations, is laid bare. (Most particularly, those critical and unheralded First Nations allies to whom an Independent Western Country and a return of the once vast Haudenosaunee Homeland would be denied). And yet, as Christians understand, it is through Christ’s sacrifice that all have gained, as reconciliation to the Father is made complete. If we query, what’s in a name? We learn the ‘Father of Upper Canada’, Major-General, Isaac Brock, Knighted ‘Sir’ without his knowledge, mere days before he died, that “Hero” of Canada, is in reality, just another son to the Father of All: Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, King of Kings, Messiah, Lord of Lords, Emmanuel, forever. 

Brock’s Corinthian column stands today above a river-boundary between two countries, in one small corner of North America; but a myriad of the crosses of Christ are planted, everywhere, in the skies and in the ground… worldwide. Indeed, Brock’s open wound, that torn and scarlet, linen-lined, wool coatee, appears diminished… next to Christ’s open tomb. The power of all Britain’s armies, through all of written history, assembled at the ready in the making and taking of empires and peoples; stand as mere silent cairns, ignored now by passersby, buried and re-buried, destroyed and reinterpreted, in contrast to the power of the Cross. As monuments to men and their colonial ‘victories’ are blown up, toppled, rebuilt, spray painted and drowned, and new voices rise to inform and challenge old ‘truths’, as the cross of the too-historied and now suspect Church is measured and held to account – has it reflected the cross of Jesus? – this Passion Week, we are all in need of a Saviour. 

St. Paul’s facade, Macau, China. Alleged reference in the famous hymn “In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time.” (pixabay photo)

As Scottish Baptist minister, Alexander MacLaren – whose late 19th century turn of phrase was admired even by the Anglicans – pointed, “The cross is the centre of the world’s history, the incarnation of Christ and the crucifixion of our Lord are the pivot round which all the events of the ages revolve.” 

From John 19:31: 

Now it was the day of Preparation and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with 

Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. … These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled. “Not one of his bones will be broken, “ … “They will look on the one they have pierced.” 

Historians and buffs alike are wont to look upon monuments that tell the tales of things in our past. Some can hardly drive by them, without pulling over. Others cannot look, as they serve as daily reminders of oppression and loss; still others are compelled to pull them down, in efforts to rebuild. We dig them up, we tear them down, we build them again. And yet we are reminded, this Passion week, perhaps more than any other, that the quest for a Saviour – that peace and an end to wars; that love and the sacrifice of self – is not found in the building of talismans that can be toppled, or in things still buried. Rather, it is met and completed in the risen Christ alone. 

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